History / Politics

Standpipe memories: I wish it could be 1976 again

Mirror 8-10-1976

Credit crunch, 1976-style

Like all moments of crisis, of course, the incident had never ended. It sent its reverberations down to this very second, to this very place … in a sense it was only happening now, for the first time.
Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend, 1945

Should you detest what you see as bogus anniversaries and media-confected nostalgia events, there may be some distress in the offing. Brace yourself for a barrage of supposedly evocative images: the first Ford Fiesta, standpipes in the street, British mercenaries in Angola, an IMF hit squad arriving at Heathrow.

Yes, believe it or not, it is 40 years since 1976, the same distance in time as that which separated President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg cemetery in Germany from the end of the Second World War. And as to why this particular anniversary is likely to garner rather more attention than would normally be expected, I can answer only that these 12 months have long seemed to be the subject of special fascination.

One explanation for this is that 1976 is sometimes cited as a late-in-the-day candidate for that least exclusive of titles: the Year the Sixties Really Ended. My nominee would be 1969, which may be boring but has the benefit of being chronologically accurate. That said, you can see why, superficially, the ’76ers make an appealing case.

In March, that quintessentially 1960s political leader, Harold Wilson, announced his resignation as both prime minister and leader of the Labour Party. Two months earlier, Concorde, emblem of the previous decade’s technological daydreaming, started scheduled flights, soaring straight into irrelevance in the age of the unglamorous but profitable jumbo jet. And 1976 was also the year that ever-rising living standards, the leitmotif of the 1960s ‘affluent society’, not only stalled, but fell, a feat to be repeated in 1977.

The drought of that long, hot summer was, perhaps, the last of the larky 1960s ‘crises’, to rank alongside the ‘invasion’ of Anguilla by the Metropolitan Police and the dive bombing of the Torrey Canyon oil tanker. Oo-er ministerial references to spouses sharing a bath suggested that Carry On Up the Standpipe could be the next offering from British cinema’s low-budget giggle factory.

Above all, the crash of the pound in the autumn, and the subsequent need to comply with the demands of the International Monetary Fund in order to secure a bailout, brought to an abrupt end the post-1961 public spending regime under which governments decided what they wanted to buy (motorways, fighter aircraft, nurses, doctors) and conjured the necessary resources into existence. Talk of actual money, it seemed, had been frightfully vulgar.

Not all of the above will bear much scrutiny. There was very little that was ‘sixties’ about Wilson’s second spell in Downing Street, marked, as it was, by twin crises involving the economy and internal security. Concorde may have encapsulated a notion of airline travel that was hopelessly out of date, but it stayed in service until 2003.

Yes, living standards fell, but so they had in 1974 – that particular piece of 1960s innocence had already been lost. The drought may have been rather less of a lark and rather more the first of the extreme weather events with which we have since become familiar. And public spending cuts were underway before the 1976 sterling crisis.

Perhaps it may be more profitable to look at the period in a different way. Someone in their teens or twenties in the year in question, with some curiosity about the world, would have been aware, to a greater or lesser extent, of being on the other side of genuinely momentous events.

In August 1974, the American president had been forced by the Watergate scandal to resign. The following spring, US prestige in the Far East had suffered a once-unimaginable reverse with the fall of Saigon. In Britain, the power cuts and three-day week of the 1973-74 state of emergency had prompted fears that the country was actually disintegrating. In May 1974, the lawful authority in Northern Ireland had been destroyed by a general strike marked by violence and intimidation, during which 39 civilians had been killed.

These events represented more than simply a string of happenings. Terrifying to most, secretly exhilarating, perhaps, for those who prefer to live in interesting times, this was era-defining stuff, indeed era-terminating. The post-war world was over, and the post post-war world had begun.

For evidence, you need look no further than the changing of the political guard on both sides of the Atlantic. In an uncanny pre-echo of our own times, professionalism in public affairs of the sort exemplified by Richard Nixon, Edward Heath and Wilson himself became more of a liability than an asset.

In America, Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford exuded good chappery of the sort befitting a former college football star, and his occasionally bumbling persona did not prevent him from running the Democrats very close in the November 1976 presidential election, Watergate notwithstanding. Wilson’s replacement James Callaghan, a plain-spoken school-leaver, was to share three traits with Ford’s successor Jimmy Carter: both ex-navy men, both former Sunday School teachers, and both farmers.

Perhaps our real fascination with 1976 lies in its having marked the start of a journey away from the post-war world, a journey whose course, certainly in Britain, was highly uncertain. By the early 1980s, three rival sets of navigators were vying for the controls urging, respectively, a sharp turn to the right, an equally sharp turn to the left, and an attempt to return back to the way we were, this last school of thought being represented by Roy Jenkins and his colleagues in the Social Democratic Party.

It would be ten years before the direction was unambiguous – 1986 saw the final rout of trade union militancy at Wapping and the freeing up of the City of London and the financial interest in general.

So maybe we ought not to begrudge the professional nostalgics. I am sure we can put up with some footage of standpipes and with having to listen to ‘Convoy’, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘I Love to Love’.

And guess what is the bestselling car of 2015 to date? Yes, the Ford Fiesta.

Happy birthday.


Giles cartoon, Daily Express 17 August 1976


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